Teachers Just Need The Right Lever

If you ever have the chance, you should go out to dinner with Adam, my co-blogger here. He is really good at it. He fancies himself as a bit of foodie and likes to throw that in your face and laugh pretentiously if you have to scan wikipedia for a working definition of pulled coffee. But then, like I found out last night, his whole charade falls apart when he takes you a little Malaysian place and tells you that he will “handle the ordering.”

For a moment, you might feel at ease. Maybe you have never been to that restaurant or, as was my case, you had very little knowledge of what one should order at a little Malaysian joint in South Philly.

But then, your comfort slips away as you realize how Adam “handles” ordering. It consists of Adam going through each part of the menu and awkwardly winking at the waitress trying to get her to tell us her favorite thing in each section. As if she were the guardian of some secret menu with all the really good options. I kind of expected Adam to slide her a twenty and she would roll out a live snake or something. I imagine Adam’s method works when he has the kind of server that loves to spout opinions about the menu. But last night, as the waitress uncomfortably laughed and assured Adam that all of the options were good, I could feel Adam’s confidence in his method shaking. He stuck with it though, and even pressed our blushing server to name a favorite Lauk, or sharable side.

Foodie my ass.

In part, I am writing this little anecdote to make fun of Adam for his unfounded confidence, because I forgot to do it last night. Adam has a way of listening and entertaining in the same minute, which I imagine is one of the many things that makes him one of the better school counselors in PA. He should write a blog about how he does that. Students in his office are both laughing and feeling valued, and I think that might be a skill that very few have. And, you should try to have dinner with Adam. You should just prepare to be a little embarrassed.

But I’m also telling this little story to point out that Adam has a way to order that he believes gets him the best meal that the restaurant offers.

My friend, who works as an advocate and watchdog for public education, would call something like that a lever. Adam pulls the lever that is asking the server about the food, and the output is a good meal. As embarrassing as it may be for his dinner guest, Adam’s lever works more often than it doesn’t.
In education there are levers being pulled everywhere.

My friend who talks about levers used this as an example: he told me that 5 years ago the district he works with and the union were in some pretty intense discussions about how they were going to evaluate teachers. He was part of a group of folks were saying that better teacher evaluation would lead to better teachers. He said, because it was the popular lever at the time, he did all he could to pull it. He wanted better and more useful evaluations. He worked with everybody involved and talked to everyone who would listen about why more comprehensive teacher evaluations and interventions would lead to better teaching. In fact, just hearing him talk about it got me excited because I really believe in evaluations and better teaching.

But then, he said none of it really worked. That lever was pulled. And students aren’t really learning any more than they were 5 years ago. Millions of dollars were invested, political capital was spent, and good people advocated for that fight. And for countless reasons, it didn’t really work.  

But there are levers out there that require much less money and lifting, and might work a lot better. Those levers might help a lot more students. In other words, there might be some light lifting we can do in some places that will move some previously immovable rocks. 

As this year begins, I want to be intentional about the levers I pull. I don’t want to be caught pulling “good” levers that don’t change anything. I don’t want to be distracted by the flashy levers that impress bosses or get funding, but leave students feeling like they have been the guinea pigs for another reform experiment. I’m only interested in the levers that help students get better. I only want to reform things that aren’t working.

The politicians, the district-level administrators, and everybody else in education will certainly have their ideas of the which levers are most important. But most of us have learned that they are not always right, and sometimes they are harmful. Good teachers have to be a little rebellious in that way.

I have a few levers that I know work, and I want to write more about them in the coming weeks. If nothing else, I want to remind myself early and often in the next 200 days that I have done some things well before so I can lean on those things. I’m also pretty sure that Adam has some near-perfect levers that don’t involve strange interactions over coconut rice. I want to hear those. And others as well.
In the end, Adam and I had a really good meal. I thought it felt a little awkward, but worthwhile endeavors usually have those moments.